As we age, many of us have trouble reading fine print or seeing clearly at night. But these vision limitations are more of an inconvenience than a worry, and most turn to reading glasses or progressive lenses to remedy them.
But there is a much more serious form of visual impairment that can occur in older people. It is known as age-related macular degeneration (AMD), one of the leading causes of blindness in people over 50.
“Age-related macular degeneration affects a person’s central vision,” said Dr. Ben Pace, ophthalmologist at the Hattiesburg Eye Clinic. “As the disease progresses, the person gradually loses their focus or ability to make out fine details in the middle of their sight. Although their peripheral vision may appear normal, they may eventually find things like reading or recognizing extremely difficult faces to make.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology recognizes February as Age-Related Macular Degeneration Awareness Month. But doctors at the Hattiesburg Eye Clinic and other vision providers across the country work every month to raise awareness about AMD — and, more importantly, what people can do about it.
AMD affects the retinal tissues at the back of the eye, known as the macula. This area is responsible for seeing fine detail, especially in the central visual region. There are two types of disease, dry and wet.
“Most cases of macular degeneration are dry, which means the tissues in the macula have thinned or deteriorated, or have formed abnormal deposits called drusen,” Dr. Pace said.
AMD typically begins in this dry stage and later becomes “wet” in some patients, he said. “We call it ‘wet’ because the disease begins to cause blood vessels in the eye to grow abnormally, which can then cause them to leak.”
At first, people with AMD may not notice significant changes in their vision. Even so, it can still be identified with one of the many diagnostic tests a doctor performs during an eye exam.
Eventually, however, vision problems will arise. These include difficulty reading without additional light or magnification, distorted or blurry objects that may appear to “jump” when focused on them, or an inability to see details. A patient may also begin to notice a blind spot in the center of their vision.
There is no cure for most cases of AMD, but there are ways to stop its progression. The treatment used depends on the form of the disease you have, dry or wet.
“We typically start patients with dry macular degeneration with a range of vitamins and nutritional supplements that help prevent or slow disease progression,” Dr. Pace said. “We also encourage them to eat a diet rich in antioxidants, especially carotenoid vegetables like kale, raw spinach, and other dark leafy vegetables.”
Lifestyle habits like avoiding smoking or wearing polarized sunglasses outside can also make a difference, he said. “Making these changes can definitely help prevent the disease from getting worse.”
With wet AMD, a patient may need injections of an anti-VEGF drug. Injected regularly and usually by a retina specialist, these drugs stop the production of vascular endothelial growth factor, a protein that promotes vascular growth. In some cases, a doctor may recommend other treatment options for a patient with wet AMD.
But as with other age-related diseases like cataracts or glaucoma, the earliest detection of AMD can have the biggest impact on disease progression. Since AMD may already be developing, patients should not wait until they have problems, but should begin annual eye exams before age 40.
Those with a family history of AMD should start regular exams even earlier.
“Because their risk is significantly higher, we recommend that patients with a family history of macular degeneration begin annual eye exams before they reach their 40s,” Dr. Pace said.
The damage AMD can cause to your eyesight is permanent. But caught early and treated consistently, you can significantly reduce your risk of blindness and protect your sight later in life.
For more information about age-related macular degeneration, call Hattiesburg Eye Clinic at 601-268-5910 (or toll-free 800-624-8254) or visit the website to learn more or to schedule a consultation at www.hattiesburgeyeclinic. com.